Cycling and drinking our way around Mendoza, Argentina (the home of Malbec)
Before coming to Argentina, I did not like red wine. It always tasted like vinegar to me, and so I stuck strictly to white wine (and champagne, of course). On my first night in Buenos Aires, however, my opinion already changed. In Argentina, a good bottle of wine is very affordable (I’m talking £4-5), and my eyes (and tastebuds) have since been opened.
So, after this revelation, I was more than happy to engage in wine tastings both in Cafayate (where I discovered my new favourite grapes: Torrontes) and Mendoza, the latter of which is famous around the world for its fantastic Malbec grapes. It is set against the beautiful backdrop of the Andes, under 400 km from Santiago de Chile (which is a tiny distance on this enormous continent!). The city itself is unremarkable. Its main square, Plaza de la Independencia, is pretty (albeit with a slight smell of urine), and we had a wonderful couchsurfing host, but nobody comes to Mendoza for the city sights. It’s all about wine, wine, and more wine. And we were no different…
Mendoza itself doesn’t actually have any wineries or vineyards – they are all located in the small village of Maipu, a 40-minute bus ride away (more than enough time to make as many Maipu puns as we were able!). The touristy thing to do is to rent a bicycle and make your way around various vineyards. So, being tourists, we did the same.
For a mere 100 pesos (£5), we rented bicycles and got 2 empanadas, a bottle of water, discounts at various bodegas, and free-flowing wine at the end of our tour (more on that later). After checking our brakes, we set off down the road in the blistering heat.
All the vineyards are between 2-4km apart, and with the roads being completely flat and most having cycle paths, navigation was simple (less of an issue at the start, but we were definitely grateful for it after our first few tipples!). As we’d had some issues finding the right bus in the morning, it was 3pm by the time we set off, and with most bodegas closing at 6pm, we had to narrow down our visits to two bodegas, plus one olive oil tasting.
We started off at Di Tommaso, the oldest bodega in town, which retains an antique and otherworldly charm. There was another tasting happening as we entered, but we were more than happy to wait outside in the shade (at 33 degrees, we avoided the sunshine as much as we could!) to eat our lunch of fresh empanadas, made by our wonderful Couchsurfing host (who happens to be a professional chef!).
We were then taken around the vineyard by our guide, Valentina, who took us first to see the grapes themselves.
She explained how they plant olives around the grapes to protect them from insects (in France, they normally use roses), and that the dry and sunny climate in Mendoza is perfect for Malbec grapes. Our sweaty selves could certainly attest to this fact!
We then took a tour of the bodega itself, which is perfectly preserved. The tanks were beautiful, with bricks from England and cement from Germany, however, the actual fermentation doesn’t actually take place there anymore, as they’ve opted to move with the times and use steel tanks in another location. But they serve rather nicely as storage for any bottles produced, and the beeswax lining the walls as protection for the wine is still largely intact.
Down in the cellar, the temperature was a cool 11 degrees, which was a welcome respite from the heat outside. We wandered through, intoxicated by the gorgeous scents of wood and sweet fermented grapes as Valentina showed us the barrels of French and American wood, used to add flavour to the wine. The French barrels had hints of vanilla, whereas the American had a smokier effect. Some wines are matured in both, and the flavours vary accordingly.
And then it was time for the highlight of our tour: the tasting. Three different wines, all red, all lined up for us to try. We sat down eagerly.
As I’ve only just started liking red wine, I cannot much describe the subtle differences in flavour… we tried a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Malbec, and another Cabernet that had been matured in the aforementioned barrels. Each one was soft on my tongue and sweeter than any reds I’ve tasted before. My favourite was the Malbec, but my companions preferred the second Cabernet. All were stunning however, and I wish we could have tasted more (the bodega also produced white, sparkling, and a couple more reds), but this was not included in the experience and so we thanked Valentina and hopped back onto our bikes.
We caught a glimpse of the snow capped Andes as we cycled furiously on to the Tempus Alba bodega. It was rather less impressive than Di Tommaso, as the tour was self-guided, the tanks were stainless steel, and there was nobody to explain the different wines to us. Instead, we could each order three of our choice and tried to make various observations on our own. Needless to say, this became more and more difficult with every sip we took. And as the wines weren’t marked, we also had no idea which ones we actually liked…!
We were keen to end our day with an olive oil tasting, and so we pedalled on to Entre Olivos, an impressive one-man shop run by Alejandro, who makes not only olive oil, but pastes, marmalades, chocolate, and most importantly, liqueurs. Feeling the need to soak up some of the grapes, we started by tasting all the olive oils and tapenades, which were supremely flavoursome. The clear favourite was the green olive paste with added garlic, though I also had a soft spot for the garlic olive oil.
I’ve never been a huge fan of jam and marmalade, so the second table was slightly lost on me. But when we reached the liqueurs… my oh my. Malbec with cinnamon, ginger, and apple. Cafe. Chocolate. Irish cream. Cerveza. We tasted each one, and couldn’t believe our tastebuds. The Malbec tasted Christmassy. The chocolate was superbly rich and creamy – I could have nursed it for an hour. The Irish cream tasted similar to Bailey’s, but smoother. We oohed and aahed, but couldn’t hold back our shock when Alejandro told us he often has the cafe liqueur in the morning with his breakfast! ‘It’s perfect for any time of day’, he proclaimed, as he went to the back to fetch us a taste of the pimiento liqueur, which set fire to our tongues, but left us wanting more.
It was the perfect ending to a tipsy day, and we returned our bikes to Maipu Bikes with a spring in our step. ‘Y las empanadas y el vino? I made it myself!’ the owner said proudly.
So we made our way around the back. The empanadas were crispy and delicious, but the wine was… well… homemade. In comparison to everything else we’d tried that day, it was more like watered down fruit juice, so we politely escaped after just a few sips.
What a day it had been! I never thought I would enjoy a day of drinking red wine, but with a bit of sun, a creaky bicycle, and some Argentinian spirit, just about anything is possible!
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